Coaches and supervisors often talk about a ‘chemistry check’ meeting as the necessary prelude to deciding to work with someone. That is completely understandable, and indeed a very good idea. The quality of relationship is a foundation of successful work together, and if the initial indicators are that they will not be able to establish a good working relationship, then it is valuable for both parties to recognise that early, and agree not to proceed.
But the term ‘chemistry check’ may conceal the process that will help us to reach that understanding. For the question is not Do we like each other? Rather it is Can we work productively together? And the process that will establish that, and lay much more secure foundations for the work, is contracting.
From Peter Block’s insights in Flawless Consulting, we learn that a contract is an explicit agreement of what the supervisor and the coach expect from each other, and how they are going to work together. So this is not so much about the legal aspects of contracting (though they are important) as about all the other aspects. Block’s work is predicated on the notion of equality in the relationship: the assumption that the most effective way to achieve real change is for both parties to take an equal role, and equal responsibility for the learning alliance.
Block provides a lot of clarity, as ever. The business of the contracting phase, as he sees it is:
Coping with mixed motivation
Surfacing concerns about exposure and loss of control
Triangular and rectangular contracting
Clearly, this is a conversation. You and the supervisor need to discuss and agree, and develop a mutual understanding, not simply sign a document.
Negotiating wants is, perhaps, obvious; it is helpful to have given this some thought, and discuss very clearly, what you want and expect from your supervisor. But be aware that may develop, clarify and even change over time, so one of your wants might be an agreement to re-visit the contract regularly. What is less obvious, perhaps, is to ensure that you elicit the supervisor’s wants and expectations. Some of these will be functional: that you turn up at the agreed times, having prepared and so on. But it can be valuable to explore with your supervisor what will make this a successful piece of supervision from his or her point of view. Firstly, because that models the idea of taking equal responsibility for the learning alliance. Also, it will provide both of you with valuable insights into how (and indeed whether) you will work successfully together.
Coping with mixed motivation is also interesting: as a coach, you probably want support and challenge; but you may also feel uncomfortable with either or both; your status or autonomy may feel under threat if you start to view the supervisor as ‘better’ in some way. It is really helpful to surface and discuss any such mixed motivation.
Resistance, in Block's understanding, normally springs from concerns about exposure and loss of control: so surfacing those concerns early is extremely valuable. That could lead to a discussion of how and why you might manifest resistance in the supervisory conversations.
As a contract is only valid if it is freely entered into, you can expect your supervisor to ask about that. If you are not entering into it freely (eg in the context of group supervision in an organisation, where you may feel under pressure to attend), it is important to address that directly with your supervisor. You or the supervisor might decide not to proceed, for example; or you might be able to negotiate a contract that you are happy to agree to.
Further, there may be several parties to the contract, not all of them obvious; so clarifying and addressing that is also vital. Again, this most typically arises in an organisational context, when your line manager, an HR professional and a coaching coordinator (for example) may all have a direct interest in the coaching. Clarifying expectations, and particularly boundaries, with regard to confidentiality and reporting, for example, is especially important here.
When discussing goals for supervision, Charlotte Sill’s framework, in Contracts for Counselling, is very helpful. Sill suggests two variables to consider: the ‘hardness’ or ‘softness’ of the goals, and the individual’s level of self-understanding in how the goals might be pursued.
The distinction between hard and soft goals is particularly helpful.
Hard goals are objective and observable: the kind of goals which everyone can see, and which can be ticked off as accomplished. I want to learn and practice three new approaches to coaching, for example.
Soft goals are more subjective and often emergent: I want to develop my professional competence and keep my coaching under critical and reflective review, for example. Coaches are often trained to push for hard goals; but in supervision (as in coaching, in fact) soft goals are often appropriate.
These two sets of variables produce a useful matrix, which can help you and your supervisor to discuss what kind of supervision may be appropriate.
Clearly, where the contract sits on this matrix may change over time. For example, you may start with clear specific ‘Hard’ goals, and on realising them, or even in pursuing them, you may discover that you have a bigger, ‘softer’ agenda. It is quite normal for the contract to move around the matrix, as the relationship develops and the work proceeds, and the coach and supervisor together realise there is other work to be done. Having clarity between the two parties about that is very valuable.
For that reason, among others, re-contracting throughout the supervision journey is important. That includes reviewing what is working and what could be better, and what is changing for you as a coach, both internally and externally. Such a discussion will allow the kind of supervision to change as appropriate, and keep both you and your supervisor clear about what it is that you are doing together. And that will also nourish the relationship, which, as we suggested at the start, is foundational to an effective supervisory journey.